During the most profound ten days of my life spent in silence, I found solace in the phrase "this too shall pass" (or "ir tai praeis" in Lithuanian). Vipassana. A meditation course. A silent retreat. The art of life. Dhamma. I try to describe it at it seems like the words fail me every single time.
Vipassana is a unique form of meditation that emphasises non-reaction. Practitioners focus on objective sensations in their body, scanning their limbs in a specific order to develop control over their reactions to external stimuli. This discipline cultivates inner peace and self-awareness, helping individuals navigate life's challenges with greater ease.
As the teacher would put it “This will feel like a surgery for your mind”. It really did. A surgery without anaesthetics.
You don't choose Vipassana; Vipassana chooses you. After a few failed attempts to register over the past couple of years, I finally got in on my birthday, February 26th. I was on a train to the mountains for a skiing trip, refreshing my phone until I was finally in to register. My friend was sitting next to me cheering me on. After a few weeks and follow-up emails, my spot was secured.
But as the course approached, I worried that life was trying to stop me from going again. A few days before the course, I was hit with severe kidney pain and had to start antibiotics. I promised myself that I would try despite the pain, but if it became unbearable, I would come back home.
The first day you arrive they consider it as day 0 - a tour of the grounds, a rundown of the rules, and the surrender of our phones. Though we could still talk, I was already lost in my own world and had little interest in idle chatter or probing questions about others' reasons for being here. But from the moment I arrived, I knew I was fortunate to experience the course in the early days of spring, just before Easter, when nature was undergoing a rebirth - and so was I. Each day was blessed with warm sunshine, and the two-hour outdoor sessions became my daily oasis. The beauty of my surroundings helped to uplift my spirits.
After the initial evening meditation, a hasty rush of footsteps filled the air as everyone scattered to their respective dorm rooms. My bed was marked with the number 12, I was sharing the space with sixteen or so other female meditators. Despite being surrounded by strangers remaining silent was not the most challenging aspect for me.
As soon as I mentioned my upcoming vipassana course to my friends, they frantically searched for the program schedule on Google. We laughed and cried at the thought of the intense discipline I was about to face, though a small part of me wondered if it was all just an exaggeration. However, Google proved me wrong. Each morning, a volunteer student would ring the gong in the courtyard, and I would drag my tired body to the bathroom, slip into my cozy clothes, and cover myself with a warm blanket before heading to the meditation hall. From 4:30 to 6:30, we sat in silent contemplation.
My breakfast at 6:30 was always the same, a simple porridge with jam, a banana, corn flakes, and dried oats, accompanied by a warming ginger tea. In the next ten days, this morning meal remained a constant as I rushed through it to grab some extra rest (aka, more sleep).
8:00 - 9:00 Mandatory group meditation in the hall
9:00 – 11:00 the hall would remain open for meditation, or if one preferred, a return to the dorm to meditate. My body would yearn for repose during this time, and I'd find myself spending an hour meditating, followed by another hour of rest which felt like a yoga nidra - a state of consciousness between wakefulness and sleeping. Even in the face of such tranquility, I never found myself slipping into a state of slumber.
11:00 – 12:00 is lunch time. The food was surprisingly good. Simple, yet flavourful vegetarian cuisine with a different daily selection. On day 4 I got really excited to see perfectly roasted potatoes. It felt like home to me. And with a cup of coffee in hand, I'd bask in the warmth of the sun outside.
12:00 – 13:00 was rest time or interviews with the teacher. As no exercise was allowed, I would walk as much as I could. I think on day 2 I counted the steps it takes to complete the loop outside (about 300 steps), and with a borrowed watch from a friend, I was able to time it - with a slightly faster pace I would complete the loop in 2min 26sec. I aimed for at least three thousand steps, relishing in the freedom of detachment from my regular routine. No longer bound to my typical yoga or reading habits, I was curious to see how my psyche would react to this newfound stillness.
13:00-14:30 we are back to meditation, either in our rooms or in the hall. For me, this was a chance to retreat to my room and find my stillness again, with my back resting gently against the wall.
14:30 – 15:30 a mandatory group meditation in the hall.
15:30 – 17:00 meditation in your room or in the hall.
17:00 – 18:00 During the tea break, new students were given 2 pieces of fruit and a hot drink, but due to taking antibiotics, I spoke to my teacher and received a plate of food for dinner instead. Once I finished the medicine, I joined everyone else and would have the fruit and a hot cacao with milk. Fortunately, the antibiotics worked.
18:00 – 19:00 a mandatory group meditation in the hall.
19:00 – 20:15 evening’s discourse. We would gather in a separate room with a small group of foreign students to partake in a discourse delivered in our native tongue. For me, it was Lithuanian. These sessions were always something to look forward to - a respite from the incessant chatter of my own thoughts. The teachings of Vipassana, as expounded by S.N. Goenka, were insightful and thought-provoking. But there was a peculiar quirk to these talks. I always found myself finishing the audio 25-30 minutes earlier than everyone else in the room. It wasn't until the seventh day that I discovered the reason for this - a note attached to my mp3 player revealing that the audio should not be played faster than x3. As it turned out, my player was set to x5 or even x8, which explained my early finishes. Nevertheless, I must confess that those 25 minutes of solitude were a welcome respite. In those moments, I indulged in light stretches or simply let my mind wander in quiet contemplation.
20:30 – 21:00 group meditation in the hall
21:00 – 21:30 questions or retire to your rooms
22:00 lights out. I must say I would struggle falling asleep and when I finally surrendered to it, I found myself lingering in the realm of dreams. Each night, a strange menagerie of images danced through my mind, whisking me away to distant worlds and memories long forgotten. Memories of my youth, my first companion and the sorrow of his loss, and even visions of myself tap dancing at the Emmy's with Neil Patrick Harris. It was as if I was a voyager on a journey through alternate realities, every single night. But then, at the stroke of four, the resounding gong would pull me back to the present moment...It’s time to wake up again.
The first four days dragged on slowly, as if time itself had lost its way. In meditation, we were instructed to fixate solely on the breath, attuned to the sensations around the nostrils. Any mental distractions were to be gently but firmly steered back to the breath. On the fourth day, we were introduced to Vipassana, a practice that involved scanning the body with a keen awareness of every sensation or ache. The goal was to observe these feelings without reacting to them, training the mind to erect a barrier against impulsive responses. With each body scan, we delved deeper into ourselves, transcending the limitations of our physical beings.
I don’t think I’ve ever had such discipline in my life. At times, I'd be my own worst critic too. "You're a yoga instructor," I'd chide myself, "why can't you sit still?" But I learned to recognise these negative thoughts and simply let them pass. I had to accept that my body was tired and uncomfortable, and that it was okay to take a brief break if necessary. Of course, that all changed on day 4 when we were expected to practice "strong determination" during the mandatory group meditations in the hall. For three sessions a day, we were not allowed to move or adjust our position. I was worried about my knee, which had given me trouble in the past, even my physio has told me not to sit in one position for too long, but it held up surprisingly well. It was my back that protested the most, with electric signals of pain shooting up and down my spine. I did my best to stay still, but sometimes life intervened. Once, a spider descended from the ceiling onto my shoulder, and I had to shuffle to get it off me. It was a small victory that I didn't scream (which, believe me, is a big deal for me!).
At times, I could feel myself merging with the space around me, my body and subconscious mind in perfect harmony. It was a beautiful feeling, but I knew it was fleeting. The moments of bliss and equanimity would soon pass, just like the discomfort and pain. It was a reminder of the impermanence of all things, a lesson we learn time and time again. Anicca (pronounced ‘anicha’), as they say. The idea wasn't new to me, as a yoga practitioner, impermanence was a common theme. But applying this concept 24/7 was a whole different ballgame. It wasn't just about acknowledging the transience of things, it was about learning to detach from suffering and purify the mind. A daunting but necessary task.
Some days I would sit in meditation thinking “ Oh wow, I cannot believe I’m finally here, doing this” and on other days, I felt like a lost wanderer, questioning why I even embarked on this journey. It was a constant battle between the extremes of our psyche. As I walked in the female walking area, I came across a bench under a tree, with a message carved on it, "for what?" It made me ponder about my past actions and my present purpose. During some meditation, my mind would wander off, lost in the past or drifting towards the future. It was a challenge to stay present, and it felt like I was stuck in a never-ending loop.
“Life and its lessons repeats mindlessly - unless you become mindful, it will go on repeating like a wheel. “
That’s why, again and again, with patience we were instructed to come back to our body and observe the physical sensations, that’s the only way out.
However, the teachers reminded us to keep coming back to our breath and observe the physical sensations, the only way to escape the vicious cycle of thoughts. They urged us to be mindful in every moment, even in the most mundane ones. It was a challenging path, but it promised less suffering and liberation.
The nature really grounded me.
Under a big blossoming tree, I found solace in the buzzing sound of the bees collecting nectar. It was a reminder of the power of breath and how it connects us to nature. The sound was so loud, yet so soothing, just like the bhramari pranayama I practiced in my yoga classes.
Watching ants go about their business was like watching a captivating movie. It was mesmerizing to see how they carried food and branches for such long distances with such focus, determination, and diligence. These little creatures taught me so much about the power of persistence and hard work. It's funny, because these same themes were repeated in the recorded audio we heard from S.N. Goenka on a daily basis.
“Work diligently. Diligently. Work patiently and persistently. Patiently and persistently. And you’re bound to be successful. Bound to be successful.”
It just goes to show that sometimes the most profound lessons can be found in the simplest things.
These ten days were a journey through my inner landscape, a trek across mountains of emotions, valleys of desires, and rivers of thoughts. Through it all, I emerged with a sharper mind and a newfound patience for myself and others. Instead of rushing to react, I now take my time to observe before I act.
Vipassana is not a magic pill that grants enlightenment. No, it's a journey of self-discovery, a chance to peel back the layers of the past, to pick out the weeds and make space for new seeds. It's a slow, deliberate process that allows us to listen to our inner voice and truly restart our nervous system. In these ten days, I watched my emotional landscape with objective eyes, observing the aches, the disappointments, the desires, and the dreams that make up my inner world. The experience was both calming and frustrating, for not a single day was the same. But that's the nature of growth - we evolve, we learn, we unlearn, we shed, and we rebirth. Sitting crossed-legged, sometimes slouching forward, sometimes shedding a tear, I experienced the real world, the nature of the mind, and the art of living. These ten days were a gift, a journey of self-discovery, a chance to find harmony in the chaos of life.
BEING BACK/ INTEGRATION
As the tenth day arrived, the walls of silence crumbled, noble silence was lifted and replaced by the sound of laughter, whispers and chatter. Though the noise was a welcomed change, a part of me yearned for the stillness of the previous days. My first conversation was with a kind soul from Holland, and as we spoke, I felt a sense of ease that only comes from being surrounded by like-minded individuals. In time, I found myself among a group of English speakers, laughing and bonding with the girl and my bunk bed neighbour whose forehead I had accidentally collided with on day three at 4am. We spent our final day together, sharing a picnic outside and trying to soak up as much of each other's company as possible. It was overwhelming yet deeply healing, as we all navigated our way back into the world beyond the meditation center.
As the day came to a close, I found myself struggling to meditate, my thoughts already drifting towards the comforts of home and the challenges that lay ahead. But as we gathered in our bunk beds that night, I felt a sense of deep connection and gratitude for the people around me, we shared stories and laughter, a final celebration of our journey together.
But the journey does not end there. The true fruits of the practice will only manifest if we continue to cultivate it. As for me, would I do it again? I think so, for the memories of those ten days will forever hold a special place in my heart. Yet, to truly understand the essence of Vipassana, one must experience it firsthand.
Let difficulty transform you. And it will.
If you are interested in doing Vipassana, the courses are offered in different parts of the globe and the only requirement is a sincere motivation to learn. The beauty of Vipassana is that it operates on a donation basis. You can give what you can or what you feel is appropriate, and this helps to keep the tradition alive and accessible to all. So if you feel the call to delve deeper into your mind and gain a deeper understanding of yourself and the world, a Vipassana course may be the perfect next step for you.
Visit their website and find out more:
The memory of our serene courtyard at Dhamma Neru Vipassana center and the sweet aroma of blooming wisteria that filled the air was like a gentle reminder to breathe deeply and take in the beauty around me. The memory of that view and scent lingers with me, like an ever-present reminder of the tranquility and serenity I experienced during my time there.